For much of the last 25 years, a huge question hanging over the field of fundamental physics has been that of what judgement results from the LHC would provide about supersymmetry, which underpins the most popular speculative ideas in the subject. These results are now in, and conclusively negative. In principle one could still hope for the HL-LHC (operating in 2026-35) to find superpartners, but there is no serious reason to expect this. Going farther out in the future, there are proposals for an extremely expensive 100km larger version of the LHC, but this is at best decades away, and there again is no serious reason to believe that superpartners exist at the masses such a machine could probe.
The reaction of some parts of the field to this falsification of hopes for supersymmetry has been not at all the abandonment of the idea that one would expect. For example, today brings the bizarre news that failure has been rewarded with a $3 million Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for supergravity. For uncritical media coverage, see for instance here, here, and here.
Some media outlets do better. I first heard about this from Ryan Mandelbaum, who writes here. Ian Sample at the Guardian does note that negative LHC results are “leading many physicists to go off the theory” and quotes one of the awardees as saying:
We’re going through a very tough time… I’m not optimistic. I no longer encourage students to go into theoretical particle physics.
At Nature, the sub-headline is “Three physicists honoured for theory that has been hugely influential — but might not be a good description of reality” and Sabine Hossenfelder is quoted. At her blog, she ends with the following excellent commentary:
Awarding a scientific prize, especially one accompanied by so much publicity, for an idea that has no evidence speaking for it, sends the message that in the foundations of physics contact to observation is no longer relevant. If you want to be successful in my research area, it seems, what matters is that a large number of people follow your footsteps, not that your work is useful to explain natural phenomena. This Special Prize doesn’t only signal to the public that the foundations of physics are no longer part of science, it also discourages people in the field from taking on the hard questions. Congratulations.
In related news, yesterday I watched this video of a recent discussion between Brian Greene and others which, together with a lot of promotional material about string theory, included significant discussion of the implications of the negative LHC results. A summary of what they had to say would be:
- Marcelo Gleiser has for many years been writing about the limits of scientific knowledge, and sees this as one more example.
- Michael Dine has since 2003 been promoting the string theory landscape/multiverse, with the idea that one could do statistical predictions using it. Back then we were told that “it is likely that this leads to a prediction of low energy supersymmetry breaking” (although Dine soon realized this wasn’t working out, see here.) In 2007 Physics Today published his String theory in the era of the Large Hadron Collider (discussed here), which complained about how “weblogs” had it wrong that string theory had no relation to experiment. That piece claimed that
A few years ago, there seemed little hope that string theory could make definitive statements about the physics of the LHC. The development of the landscape has radically altered that situation.
The Large Hadron Collider will either make a spectacular discovery or rule out supersymmetry entirely.
Confronted by Brian with the issue of LHC results, Dine looks rather uncomfortable, but claims that there still is hope for string theory and the landscape, that now big data and machine learning can be applied to the problem (for commentary on this, see here). He doesn’t though expect to see success in his lifetime.
- Andy Strominger doesn’t discuss supersymmetry in particular, but about the larger superstring theory unification idea, tries to make the case that it hasn’t been a failure at all, but a success way beyond what was expected. The argument is basically that the search for a unified string theory was like Columbus’s search for a new sea route to China. He didn’t find it, but found something much more exciting, the New World. In this analogy, instead of finding some tedious reductionist new layer of reality as hoped, string theorists have found some revolutionary new insight about the emergent nature of gravity:
I think that the idea that people were excited about back in 1985 was really a small thing, you know, to kind of complete that table that you put down in the beginning of the spectrum of particles…
We didn’t do that, we didn’t predict new things that were going to be measured at the Large Hadron Collider, but what has happened is so much more exciting than our original vision… we’re getting little hints of a radical new view of the nature of space and time, in which it really just is an approximate concept, emergent from something deeper. That is really, really more exciting, I mean it’s as exciting as quantum mechanics or general relativity, probably even more so.
The lesson Strominger seems to have learned from the failure of the 1985 hopes is that when you’ve lost your bet on one piece of hype, the thing to do is double down, go for twice the hype…
Update: The Breakthrough Prize campaign to explain why supergravity is important despite having no known relation to reality has led to various nonsense making its way to the public, as reporters desperately try to make sense of the misleading information they have been fed. For instance, you can read (maybe after first reading this comment) here that
Witten showed in 1981 that the theory could be used to simplify the proof for general relativity, initiating the integration of the theory into string theory.
You could learn here that
When the theory of supersymmetry was developed in 1973, it solved some key problems in particle physics, such as unifying three forces of nature (electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force, and the strong nuclear force)
Update: On the idea that machine learning will solve the problems of string theory, see this yesterday from the Northeastern press office, which explains that the goal is to “unify string theory with experimental findings”:
Using data science to learn more about the large set of possibilities in string theory could ultimately help scientists better understand how theoretical physics fits into findings from experimental physics. Halverson says one of the ongoing questions in the field is how to unify string theory with experimental findings from particle physics and cosmology…
Update: Physics World has a story about this that emphasizes the sort of criticism I’ve been making here.
As mentioned in the comments, I took a closer look at the citation for the prize. The section on supersymmetry is really outrageous, using “supersymmetry stabilizes the weak scale” as an argument for SUSY, despite the fact that this has been falsified by LHC results.
Update: Jim Baggott writes about this story and post-empirical science here.
Noah Smith here gets the most remarkable aspect of this right. String theory has always had the feature that the strings were not supposed to be visible at accessible energies, so not directly testable. Supersymmetry is quite different: it has always been advertised as a directly testable idea, with superpartners supposed to appear at the electroweak scale and be seen at the latest at the LHC. Giving a huge prize to a theoretical idea that has just been conclusively shown to not work is something both new and outrageous.
Update: Tommaso Dorigo’s take is here, which I’d characterize as basically “any publicity is good publicity, but it’s pretty annoying the cash is going to theorists for failed theories instead of experimentalists”(he does say he wanted to entitle the piece “Billionaire Awards Prizes To Failed Theories”):
[Rant mode on] An exception to the above is, of course, the effect that this not insignificant influx of cash and 23rd-hour recognition has on theoretical physicists. For they seem to be the preferred recipients of the breakthrough prize as of late, not unsurprisingly. Apparently, building detectors and developing new methods to study subnuclear reactions, which are our only way to directly fathom the unknown properties of elementary particles, is not considered enough of a breakthrough by Milner’s jury as it is to concoct elegant, albeit wrong, theories of nature. [Rant mode off]
Going back to the effect on laypersons: this is of course positive. Already the sheer idea that you may earn enough cash to buy a Ferrari and a villa in Malibu beach in one shot by writing smart formulas on a sheet of paper is suggestive, in a world dominated by the equation “is paid very well, so it is important”. But even more important is the echo that he prize – somewhere by now dubbed “the Oscar of Physics” – is having on the media. Whatever works to bring science to the fore is welcome in my book.